Will Political Elites Finally Follow the People?

Peter BeinartI was a little bothered to see that Peter Beinart had written, The Rise of the New New Left. My concern was that he had scooped me, because I have been working on book about the New Democratic movement. But there was nothing to fear. For one thing, Beinart seems to buy the existing narrative that the New Democrats were a rational response to the Reagan “Revolution.” While it is undoubtedly true that it was a response, it was not a rational response.

The article is worth reading, because it is downright inspiring. He argues that the liberal future is bright because the Millennials are so liberal, especially on economic issues because during their whole lives, the economy really has not worked for the vast majority of Americans. That’s music to my ears. Even the focus on economic issues is wonderful to hear. And his thesis—America is going to get substantially more liberal in the coming two decades—is almost certainly true.

Where I part company with him is in his (implicit) belief that the political elites follow the people. Sure, to some extent they do. And once the voting public is 65% liberal, you can bet that the politicians will move to the left. But I don’t think that the Millennials are really that much more liberal than their parents were. Sure, if you ask older people whether “socialism” or “capitalism” is better, they will pick “capitalism” in large numbers. That’s because these words have been so propagandized as to be meaningless. But now or 20 or 40 years ago, if you described the systems in the United States and Sweden, large majorities would pick the Swedish system.

We all know how we got the Reagan “Revolution.” Reagan got into power because the economy was bad. He became a hero because he got credit for the economic boom created when Paul Volcker lowered interest rates at the Federal Reserve. That is, not coincidentally, the change from the high interest rates that got Reagan elected in the first place. So Reagan’s effect on the country is almost entirely negative. And that was clear enough by the early 1990s. What I take exception to is the idea that Clinton got elected because he was a conservative Democrat. Almost any Democrat would have won in 1992. Clinton also gets lots of credit for a good economy that had little to do with him.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Americans remained liberal in their economic policy preferences. Unfortunately, both the Democratic and Republican elites learned the wrong lessons from those political successes. Republicans learned that cutting taxes on the rich is great for the economy. (It isn’t.) Democrats learned that being economically conservative allows them to be politically competitive. (It doesn’t.) And so now we have two political parties that are well to the right of the people on economic issues. There is a way forward, however. Maybe Bill de Blasio is its vanguard. It wouldn’t surprise me, because the current situation cannot hold.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “Will Political Elites Finally Follow the People?

  1. To start off, let me cite a study I came across recently, although it’s from January. It’s a survey of incoming college students conducted since 1966. The link below is a summary, although the original is easily found:

    http://phys.org/news/2013-01-freshmen-college-jobs-money.html

    The money quote (literally) is that "81.0 percent of incoming students—an all-time high—reported that "being very well off financially" is a very important personal goal, up from 79.6 percent in 2011." This would seem to contradict Beinart’s claims (although certainly not all "milennials" are incoming college students, and those with liberal social beliefs need not be devoted to economic equality.)

    It’s also possible that in an increasingly dog-eat-dog society, with few protections for workers and consumers, where having less than a "well-off" income can mean extreme hardship for oneself and one’s family, that even those who wish to see greater economic equality are, sensibly enough, looking to safeguard themselves and their loved ones first.

    Now for some small sample size observations. First, from David Graeber, in his "The Democracy Project." He talked to young people in the Occupy movement and found many who didn’t necessarily want the careers that now pay relatively well. They wanted to be teachers or social service workers, to devote themselves to something they found more socially useful than finance/law/health insurance. I was heartened by these stories, and surprised to hear them.

    Because (second small-sample-size observation), when I was a young student at the University Of Oregon (considered a "liberal" school), the people I knew who anguished about corporate power really didn’t do so because they resented what crimes corporations committed. They were anguished because they didn’t want to work for a boring job. They wanted careers that were creative and fun.

    Corporate crime was a bit of a liberal imprimatur on their selfishness; they’d join anti-Nike sweatshop protests since nobody wanted to work for Nike (a company that, at the time, would fire employees for being seen wearing anything but Nike gear when jogging) but happily took jobs at the creative, fun ad agency which made marketing campaigns for Nike.

    So I’ve never been overly excited by the economic liberalism of young, privileged people. I assume it will wear off when their parents’ checks do (although the liberalism on "social issues" may stick, as it does in elite paradises like Boulder or Berkeley.)

    Many Occupy protesters, as I understand, were not college students (some were veterans or the homeless), but college debt was a large motivator among that crowd by every account I’ve read, and there’s a simple way to deal with the cash-flow-concerned rebellion of college students; hire them, which is usually what happens.

    There’s another way to interpret Graeber’s observations, Beinart’s beliefs, and the survey data, however. It may be a shot in the dark, who knows, but one can look at it differently.

    If indeed a larger-than-ever contingent of young, educated (white, I’m guessing) people are more focused on money than ever before (for perfectly rational reasons), that would certainly create a backlash. A percentage of people, even young people looking to make friends and get laid, are always reluctant to accept whatever the majority believes (for perfectly rational reasons.)

    And their reluctance might take a different form than that of the young people I knew at their age, who wanted to make money in fun, creative ways. They might regard the pursuit of money as its own goal by their peers to be inherently unsatisfying, while simultaneously rejecting the rebellion of 60’s radicals who wanted a trippy love paradise that was always guaranteed never to emerge.

    They might, that reluctant minority of them, actually WANT to be teachers and service providers and, horror upon horrors, useful government employees, while wanting a decent wage for professions that are actually decent.

    That’s so hard for me to believe (because it seems far too rational for Americans to get into, much less young, privileged Americans.) If even a small percentage of "millennials" truly think this, though, that’s the background for good things to happen in the future.

    You don’t get into teaching or social services with idealism and have the same easy time backing out as you do leaving campus protests behind. You meet people you help; you meet people with passion for helping. (You also meet the same share of assholes as in any other profession, of course.)

    The phrase bandied around in my youth by those who had graduated from idealism to pragmatism was "grow up." As in, make more money. If you hadn’t discarded idealism for pragmatism, you hadn’t matured. Is it possible that some of today’s young people are really, actually, social grownups? My first instinct is to doubt it. But it’d be amazing if that’s true.

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